Tenant farmers in England are losing confidence in agri-environment schemes due to the “shambolic” administration by Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA).
Some 14,000 historic Environmental Stewardship payments remain outstanding and about 8,000 Countryside Stewardship payments for 2018 await processing, according to the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA).
George Dunn, TFA chief executive, said: “It is especially important for tenant farmers to be paid on time given the absolute requirement upon them to make regular rent payments to their landlord.”
Many of the association’s members have received emails from the RPA apologising for the length of time it is taking to complete payments, but giving no indication of when the money will be paid.
The email says: “Our focus is currently on clearing historic advance and final payments. We are aiming to complete 95% of 2017 final payments by the end of July, and then to complete the remainder of 2018 advance payments.”
The RPA has said the delay does not necessarily mean there is anything wrong with the claim, but that more time is needed to finish essential checks.
Tenant farmers are frustrated with the government’s failure to deliver its side of the bargain, says Mr Dunn, made worse by being out of pocket for delivering the scheme’s requirements.
“It is particularly galling when Defra talks about the need for farmers to enhance their productivity when its own agencies are unable to fulfil contractual requirements for payments,” he said.
“The government will have to conduct a major exercise to restore confidence in agri-environment schemes, particularly as we move to a more public payments for public goods basis for future policy.
“This must start with getting money out the door in return for work done in accordance with contractual commitments.”
Responsibility for the handling of Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship payments was transferred from Natural England to the RPA in October.
Defra secretary Michael Gove announced in February that bridging payments worth up to £28m will be paid from April to farmers still waiting for Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme payments.
He admitted the CS scheme was “still in a mess” and that the government must do better to deliver environmental stewardship payments.
An RPA spokesperson said: “We understand how important these payments are to farmers and land managers, which is why we are focused on getting money into bank accounts as soon as possible.
“We acknowledge that performance on stewardship schemes hasn’t been good enough but we are working hard to simplify the administration of the scheme as far as possible under the current EU system, by streamlining processes, making changes to IT systems and boosting workforce to speed up processing.”